The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Rhapsody in Doom

The city of Rhapsody is a city of tangles and knots.

Shops and apartment buildings stand in teetering stacks, and its streets are all twisty. Some people swear the streets change, moving to different locations from week to week, just to be confusing. The river that runs through the center of Rhapsody is criss-crossed by a dazzling assortment of bridges built in every architectural style imaginable, because a long time ago, when Rhapsody was first built, the city council held an architectural contest with a grand prize of $100,000, and engineers from far and wide came to out-bridge each other. The result was an alarming and impractical line-up of bridges that the city council had been thoroughly unprepared to handle and that now creates horrific traffic jams during rush hour. For the children of Rhapsody, who don’t yet have to contend with rush hour, the bridges provide long sweaty summer afternoons of climbing through the chaos like gangs of monkeys.

The most miraculous thing about Rhapsody, however, is not its array of bridges, nor its twistiness. The most miraculous thing is something you can’t see at all. It’s something you hear.

Rhapsody has more amphitheaters and concert halls and hole-in-the-wall live music venues than it does groceries, or tailors, or even bridges. For although the citizens of Rhapsody use ordinary money for some trade, there is another, much more valuable currency in use throughout this city.

Listen closely, and you’ll hear it, even out here on the outskirt roads. Close your eyes. Do you hear that cacophony of fiddles and pipes, of drums and tambourines and glockenspiels and horns? That ever-present trill of song?

I’m sure you do hear it. And I’m sure you feel the accompanying thrill along your arms, raising the hairs on your skin and eliciting cascades of goose bumps.

That cacophony is Rhapsody’s other, miraculous currency: music. And the thrill you feel, the magnetic pull, the prickling energy—that is magic.

In Rhapsody, even a simple fiddled jig can conjure enough magic to provide a brief reading of one aspect of your future, or an hour-long love spell, or the clearing of a few unsightly blemishes. A piano concerto can get you enough magic to imbue a handful of unremarkable stones with the power of runes. A quality string quartet is enough for a night of invisibility; a symphony performed by a full orchestra, a temporary glamour that can disguise your true features. Both are perfect for covert operations, if that’s your thing.

But a song—the simple sound of a melody spun through the air by a single human voice—produces a more powerful magic than any other type of music. I’m not sure why, so don’t ask me. It’s the truth, though.

Such was the case the day Dmitri Hatchett was born.

*

Dmitri’s mother was talentless and pleasantly ordinary. Since her parents died when she was twelve, she’d scratched out a humdrum living doing odd jobs for rich people—mending their clothes and massaging their bunions and watching over their personal items when out for a day of hunting in the hill country. Despite her ordinariness—or perhaps because of it—she managed to charm the son of a Mr. Roquefort. His name was Ferdie or Llewellyn or something equally ridiculous, I can’t remember. Anyway, they fell in love, I guess, although opinions are mixed on that. But Ferdie-Llewellyn-Whatever soon decided he didn’t love her after all, and divorced her, and turned her back out onto the streets.

As you can imagine, by the time Dmitri’s mother gave birth to Dmitri, she was in a sorry state. She was alone and heartbroken, and she couldn’t afford a hot breakfast, much less a proper nurse. So just after Dmitri drew his first breaths, his mother drew her last.

But not before she sang to him.

That’s how the legend  goes: That as Dmitri Hatchett’s mother lay dying, she sang her son a song. It was full of enough love and sadness and regret and pain to make up for the fact that her voice was kind of repulsive. All that emotion turned her voice, for a few brief moments, into something lovely.

Then she died, and Dmitri was alone. He was found on the street sometime later by Gipsy Blue, the mistress of a pickpocketing gang, who pretended to be a brute but was actually a huge softie. She took him in, and the root of his mother’s song was already turning over quietly deep inside him. Gipsy fed him and gave him his name. She dressed him in patched-up diapers and was at least halfway obsessed with tickling his feet. If her gang ever suspected that she actually liked Dmitri, they wisely decided not to say anything about it.

As Dmitri grew up, so did his mother’s song. It grew in the most secret part of his heart, which is coincidentally the same spot from which both magic and music originate. It grew and it grew. Dmitri became tall and lanky and freckled, and eventually he realized what was growing inside him—a beautiful song, perhaps one of the most beautiful that had ever existed. And with it, of course, grew the potential for either a great or terrible magic, depending on what kind of person Dmitri turned out to be.

Dmitri, thankfully, wasn’t an idiot. He kept his secret safe so he wouldn’t end up dead in a twisty alleyway somewhere with his throat or diaphragm cut out by someone on the Rhapsody black market, desperate for magic and willing to undergo or at least facilitate an illegal transplant. As if a transfer of vocal cords or internal organs could give you musical talent. The people of Rhapsody could be so depraved. Not to mention medically ignorant.

So Dmitri kept quiet—he was practically a mute, in fact—until a fateful Saturday afternoon when he was the solid age of twelve. There was a storm brewing, a great roiling storm that cast an ugly light over Rhapsody’s rooftops and sent the children scampering inside from their bridges. It was a storm of destiny. That’s how the legend goes. Take it with a grain of salt or whatever. You know how legends can be.

 *

That very afternoon, The Amazing Lockhart was traveling near Rhapsody in a rickety wagon covered with painted stars. If you were an astute enough observer, you’d be able to tell that it was a manufactured ricketiness. The paint had been peeled by a tool, and not naturally over time.

The Amazing Lockhart wanted you to think he was impoverished and unfortunate, so that you would take pity on him and donate generously to his patched felt hat at the end of one of his magic shows.

But Lockhart was neither impoverished nor unfortunate. He had enough money to be comfortable, and he hadn’t died yet, so I think we can agree he was fortunate in that regard at least.

He was, however, a fool, though he wouldn’t realize it in time. Most fools don’t.

You see, Lockhart was not amazing in the truest sense of the word. He was one of those street magicians who can’t perform real magic, but instead has to resort to illusions and sleight of hand. That’s all fine, in my opinion. It still looks impressive, even if it isn’t strictly authentic.

But Lockhart yearned to be a real magician. He dreamt about it every night. He had done all sorts of nasty things in all sorts of nasty corners of the world in an attempt to force magic inside him. But it’s not the kind of thing you can force, and Lockhart had become a bitter, angry loser.

You might think that’s cruel of me, to call him that. Haven’t we all felt like a loser at various times in our lives?

But just wait. He deserves it.

*

On this same afternoon, a young musician from Rhapsody was traveling the same country road down which Lockhart was traveling.

This young musician was singing to himself as he walked. Most Rhapsodisians would never dream of doing such a thing while all alone in a strange place, where anyone could happen by, sense their magic, hear their song, and put two and two together. But this traveling musician had just turned fifteen years old and thought he was the greatest and most indestructible creature to have ever walked the planet.

 *

Lockhart heard the musician’s lilting song, and he felt the magic accompanying it. It was unmistakable. Maybe because he’d spent all his life obsessing about it, and had read so many books about it, and had spent years sucking up to actual talented magicians—but whatever the reason, Lockhart tasted that magic like someone had just dashed a handful of spice onto his tongue. He tasted its bold, brash, kind of stupid fifteen-year-old-boy flavor.

“Ah.” He sat up straighter, and his poor abused team of mules winced at how hard he pulled their reins. “Ah, that is something, isn’t it? That is something indeed.”

Lockhart was tired of traveling around with all the bumpkins and the hicks. He was tired of living off of radishes and rats, and he was tired of sucking up to talented magicians. He wanted to be a talented magician. He wanted to be rich, famous, and terrifying. He wanted to receive love letters sprayed with perfume.

So he crept up on the traveling musician. He wasn’t sure how he was going to go about this, exactly. He’d killed people before as part of horrible rituals—which, by the way, had proven completely useless as well as gruesome, in that they hadn’t granted him the power of real magic after all—but he’d never killed someone with the aim of capturing their voice first.

But then he remembered: In the back of his wagon, in that deep purple box he’d stolen from that dark church in the north, where the monks wore masks and the priests had no tongues. That deep purple box that the monks had said would provide Lockhart with whatever he needed at the moment he needed it most.

Ah.

At the time, Lockhart had thought the monks were making fun of him. He had carelessly thrown the empty box into the back of his wagon. He had listened to them laughing, and their laughter had burned his ears. He had lost two fingers in that church, during a ritual the monks swore would get him some magic at last.

Dirty rotten masked liars.

But now, he felt deep in his brittle black heart that this was it. This was the key to his long-awaited success. The monks had known he would encounter this young musician on this very day. His two lost fingers were simply the price he had had to pay to earn this gift. It had all been fated.

Lockhart dug for the purple box with shaking hands. Where before it had been empty, there now lay nestled inside it, within folds of velvet fabric, an unkind-looking brass tool. It was made of wire, in a shape similar to those monks’ masks. In addition, it sported two levers that cranked open when you wound the knob between them, and the knob itself clicked open to reveal a tiny dark space. It was both a knob and a small container, too small to hold anything but a few pennies.

Or a few of something even more precious than that.

This was it. A diabolical plan came to life in Lockhart’s mind. This, he knew, was his destiny.

*

The young traveling musician didn’t see it coming. He was thinking about this cute girl from town who had the best smile he’d ever laid eyes on. Maybe when he got back, he would ask her to go to the meadow with him. He would bring along a picnic lunch. He would tell her jokes and make her laugh.

He would . . . he would . . .

What was that?

A shape in the shadowy road. A hulking darkness in the brambles.

It leapt at him. It pinned him down. It was a man with dirty fingernails and even dirtier teeth. The man thrust an unfamiliar brass tool right in the musician’s face.

The tool latched onto the musician, pushing his skin back from his skull and clamping down on his cheeks like a hockey goalie’s mask gone wrong.

The musician screamed and tried to claw the device off of himself. Even the dirty-fingernailed man looked a bit shocked.

 *

Of course, this didn’t stop Lockhart from turning the knob, which opened the levers, which forced open the musician’s mouth. When this happened, some kind of force threw Lockhart back onto the ground, and cracked open the musician’s jaw with a terrible snapping sound.

The little knob’s lid flew open, and the musician’s body flopped around on the ground like a dying fish.

Finally, he fell still. Except he was making this horrible gagging noise like he wanted to throw up and couldn’t.

A thin spiral of light, like golden smoke, floated up from the boy’s throat, right into the waiting brass box.

The box snapped shut. The device unfolded itself from the musician’s face, creeping off of him like a liquid spider, and then became still, like it was just an ordinary tool and not . . . whatever it truly was, which even I’m not sure of, to be frank. I don’t like this sort of business, myself.

For a long time, the musician lay there, gray-faced and blank-eyed, while Lockhart stared and wiped his brow and looked around to make sure no one had seen this happen.

Then he picked up the brass tool and began to laugh. He laughed loud and long, and he did a little jig right there on the forest road while his team of mules gazed at him judgmentally.

“I did it!” Lockhart crowed. “I stole his voice!” He could feel the magic thrumming there in that box, between his hands.

He dropped to his knees and said a prayer to the skies, which was pretty rich, all things considered.

“I will finally be able to do magic,” he said, tears rushing down his cheeks. “I will finally, finally, be what I’m meant to be.”

Little did Lockhart know that he hadn’t just stole that musician’s voice. Magic and music are about so much more than what kind of vocal cords you have and the capacity of your lungs.

He had stolen the musician’s soul, and in that soul resided all the magic of his music, and all the power of his magic. There are consequences for stealing such a thing. They may not happen at first, but they always happen eventually.

Lockhart led the musician into the wagon and tied him into a chair and let him sit there like a zombie, drooling on himself. Lockhart knew nothing of souls. But those masked monks in the north did. They were probably watching this whole terrible business through some secret magical mirror or something, right at that very moment, eating popcorn or whatever the northern equivalent is. They hadn’t ever liked The Amazing Lockhart. They considered him a dangerous egomaniac. They’d been waiting for this day.

*

For reasons utterly mysterious to most people in Rhapsody who only knew Gipsy Blue as a pimpled criminal suffering from chronic halitosis, Dmitri Hatchett had become fond of Gipsy over the years. After all, she hadn’t let him die or anything. And you got used to her stench after a while.

So when she got caught outside in that same fateful storm, and was struck by a freak bolt of lightning, and fell down into the river through the one spot where there wasn’t a bridge to break her fall, Dmitri’s heart shattered.

Dmitri gathered her body from the river and brought her home with the rest of Gipsy’s gang. He dried her off and set her out on her bed and held her cold, lifeless hand. He felt utterly alone.

He began to cry. His tears fell down his cheeks and onto their joined hands.

Then, for the first time in his life, Dmitri began to sing.

It was a song for the dead. It was supposed to help a dead soul move on to the next life without any trouble, and it rocked the very foundations of Rhapsody with its power.

*

It rocked and rippled out past Rhapsody, into the hill country, into the brambled woods.

 *

It rocked the wheels of The Amazing Lockhart’s wagon. It made his team of mules stumble and snort.

*

It made the poor gray-faced soulless musician in Lockhart’s wagon open his mouth in a horrible, hoarse grunt.

*

It pulled The Amazing Lockhart’s gaze out of the woods and onto the horizon, where he could see the faint outlines of a city.

“Could there be more of such creatures?” he whispered to himself. And it seemed to him that the purple box nestled in his lap whispered, Yessss.

“Then I must go there,” he said, and to experiment, he used a spell he had learned in the western deserts. A simple thing, a petty thing. It was a spell to make a wagon drive itself. He had never been able to do it.

Until now.

He felt a thin cord of power snaking out from the purple box, up through his chest, and out of the wagon. It was angry that it had been stolen, but it obeyed Lockhart anyway. It wrapped around the mules’ reins and tapped them lightly on their haunches.

It whispered, Drive, beasts. Drive.

And as that thin cord of magic wrapped tighter and tighter around Lockhart’s soul, he began to smile. It was an unnaturally thin and wide smile that made him look stretched-out.

“I must have more,” he said. He sat back, lazy, and let the spell do its thing. “I will have more.”

*

“Have you heard?”

Dmitri turned over and put his pillow over his head.

“Hey!” Something smacked his skull. “Wake up. You’re so lazy, man.”

Dmitri glared up at Wrench, who was probably his best friend in Gipsy’s gang, on days he could stand Wrench’s company, at least.

“Here. Look at this.” Wrench threw a newspaper at Dmitri’s face.

Dmitri sat up and read the front page article, and he felt his stomach tie up in terrible cold knots as he did so.

Another child had been taken.

“That’s eleven so far,” Dmitri said quietly. Ever since his song for Gipsy, he’d been talking more and more. Not much, but enough to freak people out.

Case in point: Wrench shuddered. “I don’t know if I’m okay hearing you talk. You’re not supposed to talk.”

Dmitri shoved him off the bed. “I don’t know if I’m okay with seeing your ugly face.”

They shoved and punched and wrestled each other. Then Wrench went off to do his Monday rounds on Eldridge Street, and Dmitri wandered off to Jasper Street.

He didn’t much feel like pickpocketing, though. Not with those eleven kids missing.

People gone missing and murdered for their magic wasn’t news. Remember what I said about the citizens of Rhapsody and their magical black market and their thing for diaphragms.

But until now, there had always been this unspoken rule: No hurting children.

Add to this the fact that these weren’t the usual disappearances, where a body would show up with some of their parts missing.

These were complete disappearances. It was like these kids had never existed. No one could find them—not the police, not private investigators, not the search-and-rescue dogs.

Dmitri didn’t earn much money that day. His heart wasn’t in it. And besides, everyone in Rhapsody was guarding their pockets and staying indoors. No kids played on the bridges. Worst of all, the streets were quiet. No music graced the streets of Rhapsody in those days, not a hint of song.

People were afraid.

*

When Dmitri arrived at home late that night, his heart heavy with worry, he saw his gang huddled around the kitchen table. They were hovering over the evening edition of the newspaper.

They turned when they saw him, and he knew what had happened by the looks on their faces.

“Wrench is gone,” he whispered. “Isn’t he?”

The littlest of their gang, a weaselly-looking boy named Hardy, burst into tears. Hardy’s older sister tried to sing a piece of comfort magic for him, but she was sniffling too hard to make it work.

The portrait of Gipsy Blue, which hung over their fireplace and had been, since her death, decorated with flowers, seemed to waver in the candlelight like it was crying. The flowers surrounding her pockmarked face were brown and dry.

Twelve children.

What was the link between them? Or, Dmitri thought, were their disappearances random?

He paced in front of the fire, until the last of the gang had either gone upstairs to bed or slumped right there on the dirt floor, snoring.

 *

Twelve children.

Deep below the river and its bridges, in a dank passage of sewer, The Amazing Lockhart put on a gramophone record and twirled about happily in front of his wagon.

“Twelve, twelve! A dozen for me!” He took a swig of drink and spat it at the face of the nearest child—a sweet-faced girl whose name, he had deduced from the flavor of her soul, was Penny. Her soul thrummed in the tiny box of that evil brass tool, which Lockhart kept in his pocket. Sometimes, like right now, he took it out and cracked open the box and held it to his ear.

Image by Nate Robert

Image by Nate Robert

“Shhh!” He pointed at the collection of gray-skinned, slack-jawed children surrounding him. He had tied them to the great concrete pillars holding up the sewer tunnels. The chains cut into the skin of their arms. They hung around him like the numbers on some demented clock. They were soulless and drooping. One of them was a buck-toothed boy named Wrench.

“Listen!” Lockhart told them. He sneered at them. They all disgusted him. “Listen to yourselves.”

Their twelve voices could be heard from outside the box, which had become their prison. Twelve voices, twelve souls, twelve distinct flavors of magic—savory, saccharine, sour. Like fine wines, Lockhart let the flavors of the children’s magic float along his tongue. He breathed them in and let their souls filter down into his own, horrible one.

He had deduced that the voices of children created the most pliable magic. It was easy to take it from them and make it his own. Listening to their voices filled him with both joy—that he had managed to trap their magic and use it for himself—and also with a terrible hatred.

Why was it that he had not been gifted with this magic from birth? None of these children had lost their fingers trying to get a taste of power.

Maybe he would change that. He eyed Penny Granger’s bare, muddy toes. Yes, maybe he would.

He ducked inside his wagon for a knife, but then the clock over the door chimed the hour.

“Ah!” Lockhart whirled around, forgetting all about the knife. “You know what that means, dearest ones. Play time.”

He drew upon the stolen magic wrapped around his soul—twelve different magics, all helpless to obey him. Twelve voices, trapped in a northern box, merging into his.

Never in his life had he been able to sing like this.

“Twelve little children, turned to rot
Twelve bratty trash heaps, all forgot!”

It was an appalling spell he had made up himself. He had made up his own spell. Lockhart giggled, half-delirious at the thought. He was becoming ridiculously talented. He could hardly stand it. He was desperate to show himself off.

One more child. He needed just one more. Thirteen was a good number. Thirteen was a hefty, tricky number. It was his hope that with thirteen children, he would be able to create something monstrous, something like the brass device, but made entirely of magic instead of metal. He would suck out all the power from this greedy, puffed-up town. He would leave its citizens lifeless husks and be on his way, with a box full of magic, an endless supply of power.

He grinned to think about it. He only needed one more to make it happen. He knew it instinctively. Thirteen children. You could do all sorts of things with thirteen. Those masked monks in their cold black church had told him that. He would have to pay them a visit one of these days, to thank them for what they had given him, and maybe to take off some of their fingers in revenge. It was only fair.

Lockhart’s spell ricocheted off his palms and raced around the circle of children. The spell slapped them each across their faces, over and over, while Lockhart hooted and hollered and danced, kicking their dangling legs. His spell left angry red marks on their faces. They let out muted sounds of pain, but nothing more. They couldn’t, without their souls.

The poor traveling musician let out the most pained sound of all. He was stuck there, across from Penny Granger, forced to stare at her deadened eyes. He knew what he was seeing, and yet he didn’t. He was a confused shell of skin and bones.

After a while, Lockhart exhausted himself. He sat back in his wagon and tapped his toes together.

“One more. I only need one more.”

*

At three in the morning, Dmitri stopped pacing.

It had been a month since that fateful stormy day, since the first child disappeared, and in all his pacing, Dmitri had hit upon a ghastly thought.

“What if,” he said slowly, “whoever is taking these children is after their magic?”

Weasel-faced Hardy, who had fallen asleep on the hearth, blinked sleepily awake. “Wha?”

An internal fire lit up Dmitri’s heart. “People have tried to take others’ magic before, but it’s never worked. They’ve never had the proper tools. They’ve done stupid things like carve out body parts.”

Hardy nodded sagely. The hearth was cold and ashy, so he started humming to conjure up a tiny warming spell, but Dmitri slapped a hand over Hardy’s mouth and silenced him.

“What if,” he said, “someone did have the proper tools?”

Hardy was dumbstruck. “Like what?”

dead_flowerDmitri shivered. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. But Gipsy Blue’s portrait was staring down at him, and his mother’s song was surging up inside of him. He had barely scratched its surface when he sang that tune for Gipsy’s death, and the rest of it was ready now, after all these years. He was ready.

He took off his cap and plopped it onto Hardy’s head. “Tell everyone I’ll be back by lunch.”

Then he hurried out into the night. He was frightened, but he had a feeling that his mother, wherever she was and whoever she had been, would be proud of him.

 *

The Amazing Lockhart slithered out of the sewers. His body was long and scaled, thick and agile. His thin black tongue flicked out to taste the cobblestones.

It was a spell he had found in one of those books he’d picked up at that questionable flea market in Cliff Town. He’d thought the books were useless, but it seemed when you had magic, anything was possible.

A great bitterness rose up inside him at the thought of these people who had lived here in this city, hoarding their magic. So many years he had wasted, living an ordinary life! Never again would he allow that to happen.

He coiled on the riverbank beneath a bridge, waiting. Children couldn’t resist the bridges.

Then he heard it: A song. It was so beautiful he almost wept.

Almost.

He climbed up the river wall and hurried down Broad Street, his fangs glistening with stolen power.

 *

Dmitri was so afraid that his knees were shaking. Sweat coated his palms and plastered his hair to his forehead.

He could feel something approaching in the night—something tremendous and frightening. It was gaining on him, and it wanted him. It thirsted for his voice, it hungered for his magic. He could feel it like a storm in the air—heavy and unstoppable, a rolling mass of force. It would peel off his skin; it would tear out his bones. An air of frightened children hung around it.

But Dmitri stood on the highest bridge in Rhapsody, under the stars, his feet planted on the cold marble stone like twin anchors. He did not run or try to hide. He sang, and he sang.

He sang the song his mother had given him—except for the ending. The ending, he saved for later.

Or so the legend goes.

*

Lockhart reared up from the side of the bridge. He saw himself in the terror on this boy’s face. He saw his towering snake-shadow, and felt the vibrations of his own might in the air.

He dove, fangs flashing. He wrapped his coils around the boy and squeezed, making sure not to stop his heart or crush his bones—but almost. He wanted the boy in pain, but not dead. If he was dead, his soul would leave, and the whole thing would be pointless.

Lockhart opened his mouth over the boy’s face. His snake jaws could have swallowed the boy’s entire skull. But instead he drank in the sound of the boy’s voice. He inhaled the particular magical flavor of the boy’s soul.

For this boy, this Dmitri Hatchett—Lockhart knew this by listening to the twists and turns of Dmitri’s burglarized soul—would not stop singing, no matter how much it hurt.

*

Dmitri was losing consciousness. His vision was darkening, full of red pulsing spots. Some kind of cold metal device was clamped around his face, shoving his jaws apart. He was ninety-nine percent sure a snake was wrapped around his body, crushing the life out of him.

That was insane. Maybe he was hallucinating the shape of his attacker.

But whoever or whatever it was, Dmitri could feel it gulping down his soul. He knew it was his soul even though he’d never really thought about such things before. He could feel something important being threaded out of his throat, uncoiling. He felt himself drifting out of his body into the tight dark confines of a tiny brass box.

It was a crowded box. It held twelve other childlike driftings, and they were cramped and argumentative:

You’re stepping on my foot!

Well, maybe if someone didn’t smell so bad, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to get away from her!

Well, maybe I’ll step on both your feet if you don’t shut your stupid faces!

I want to go home. Please, someone help me get out of here!

Cut it out, said Dmitri. It was so weird that he could talk while being outside his body. It was also weird to realize that his body was being dragged into the sewers by a man with dirty teeth and fingernails who kept sticking his tongue in and out like he hadn’t quite finished being a snake. But living on the streets as a pickpocketer taught you to be quick on your feet. Even if your feet were temporarily noncorporeal. So Dmitri rallied.

We have to work together, he shouted over the rest of them. Please listen to me.

The other twelve laughed and cried and jeered. You? Why should we listen to you? You’re new. You don’t get it, do you?

Dmitri? That was Wrench’s soul, frightened and confused. Is that you?

It is. He wanted to hug Wrench, but of course he couldn’t. For a moment, he imagined being like this forever—without a body, trapped in a box, his magic being used by another—and a heavy despair pressed down on him.

But the ending of his mother’s song was still inside him, safe and waiting, so he didn’t let the despair beat him. Souls are plucky like that.

Just everyone be quiet, Dmitri commanded. Trust me. Please. I’m going to try something.

And maybe they heard the authority of the song in his voice, or maybe by that point they were desperate enough to try anything, but whatever it was, something miraculous happened:

Twelve bickering souls fell silent, and Dmitri sang his mother’s last words.

“Clouds in the sky, sun in the west
Tiny hot heart beats in tiny hot chest
Winds from the east, stars shining bright
Tiny little boy won’t go without a fight

Big mean world, long hot road
But your strong arms can carry this load
Life ain’t short, life ain’t long
All I can give you is this one last song”

He sang it over and over, his voice shaking like a newborn bird. Twelve bickering, savory, sweet, tangy souls listened, and understood. Their voices wove together like the knotted streets of Rhapsody. They gathered into a battering ram of magic for Dmitri to carry.

*

Lockhart was hanging up Dmitri’s body in the center of the circle of children. He figured there was something special about this boy, so he should keep him in an important position. There couldn’t be any harm in trying to flatter the boy’s magic.

He slapped Dmitri across the face, hard. He didn’t like the look on the boy’s face. He slapped him again; the boy looked way too smug.

That’s when he felt it: A hot fist tapping his shoulder, a metallic finger running down his back.

I would imagine, at this point, Lockhart thought something like: That can’t be good. Maybe he didn’t think that, I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t afraid whatsoever. But I like to think he was afraid when he turned and saw the tiny brass box with its levers and its wire cage floating in midair, buoyed there by the magic of thirteen children’s angry souls.

Their songs echoed throughout the sewers, sending the mules into a panic. Lockhart tried to run, but he couldn’t. The monks’ device seized him by the face, yanking him to the ground. The levers pried open his stinking, black-lined mouth.

The thirteen souls burst out of their cage, led by Dmitri and his mother’s song. The voice of Dmitri’s soul was a clear, high sound, and he wasn’t alone. They sang with him, and their magic was like a chorus, an army. Like Gipsy Blue’s gang of street thieves, minus the body odor.

They gathered, thirteen glowing spools of filmy gold, as the device threw The Amazing Lockhart about the sewer, bashing his head, cracking his bones. He groaned and screamed, but there was no mercy here in this circle of children. When he fell silent, the little brass box opened once more, and Lockhart’s soul—a disgusting, stinking thing—crawled out of his throat. It could hardly move. It was flaking away. It was full of his own poison.

The box snapped shut, with Lockhart’s soul inside it—silent and alone. The movement was enough to send Lockhart’s wide-eyed, gray-faced body rolling down into the flowing sewer water. If you wanted to call it water, that is. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.

Let’s call it sludge and hope he choked on it.

*

I could tell you many things at this point: How the children’s souls returned to their bodies, and if they all stayed friends after that shared traumatic experience. If Dmitri kept singing after that, or if he had no more songs to sing, or if he grew up to be a famous tenor at the opera. If the mules ever found a kind owner, if the traveling musician ever took Penny Granger on that picnic, and if the children told the truth about their disappearances or made up something more believable. Or if they did tell the truth, if anyone believed them.

Maybe this legend is just that—a legend Dmitri and his friends started telling because the real reason behind their disappearances was something much more normal. Like, maybe they had all just gone on a camping trip in the woods and forgot to tell anyone. Or they decided to pull a Tom Sawyer and see how the town would react if everyone thought they were dead. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, I guess you can never know for sure. I’m just telling you how it was told to me. Take it with a grain of salt or whatever. You know how legends can be.

The Talent of the Howl (by Katherine Catmull)

Sing us a song, Grandma.

Don’t want to. Don’t make me.

Then tell us a story, then. 

A story, yeah!

We’d love one, Grandma.

Don’t want to tell a story. Don’t make me.

Do one. You have to do one. A story or a song.

Story or song! Story or song!

Please!

I’ll tell a story, then. I’ll tell an awful, horrid story, which is what you children deserve.

Hurray!

Long ago, long time ago, when I was young —

That was before the MOON, probably.

—when I was young, there was a girl. A girl who loved to sing. She could sing indeed, she was a good singer—not an opera singer, not that kind of voice. Her voice was simple as water, and that sweet.

But when she sang a sad song—ah, then. That girl had the talent of the sad song. When she sang a sad one, her voice pulsed with the blood of her aching heart. Her breath moved like the ocean moves, from somewhere far beneath.

song pic

And when she sang like that, then the people stood around her, mouths open, eyes full, and when she was finished, they said, “Sing again.” That girl had the talent of the howl.

A howl! Hahahaha! That means she had a BAD voice!

No, child. A song is a howl, like a dog’s howl, you know.

No it isn’t. 

Isn’t either!

Is that right? Then how come when you sing near a dog, he’ll soon begin to howl along with you—at least, if the dog looks up to you, he will. I don’t know how your dog feels about you. A song done right is your whole body howling, like a dog’s body howls and howls. That’s true for anyone, and any song.

But if you’re a true singer, as this girl was—and if you find a song with just the right sadness to it, one that harmonizes with your own sad heart—and if you sing it right, if you sing it true . . . . well, then, as this girl discovered, something remarkable happens. You close your eyes, singing, and the song wraps around you, invisible as glass. The song becomes a container, like a bottle or a boat. And then that bottle-boat bobs along the ocean of time, with you safe inside it.

When you do it right, your howl becomes a glass ship, that carries your worried mind away, far out to sea.  songpic2

And it’s such a relief, to leave this hot, bright, noisy place, and find yourself bobbing on the silent-cold and moonlit water. It’s such a relief to be carried away, unable to pause, unable to think, only letting your heart pour from your mouth, and wrap about you, and carry you away.

Oh children: to be alone and silent inside your own heart’s song, bobbing on the waves—it’s a great relief. A great relief. Greater than I can ever say.

. . . .

Grandma?

Is that the end of the story?

It wasn’t very horrible, really.

Sorry. Lost myself a moment.

It’s a relief, as I say, to be carried across the sea by your song.

But it’s dangerous, too.

Because—as this girl discovered—one day, your song may wash you up somewhere . . . somewhere new. Somewhere else.

This girl had a song, a favorite sad song. And one day, as she sang it, and closed her eyes, the song swept her out to the cold sea, as usual. She lay back, singing, and watched the million stars and the only moon, hiding and playing behind bits of cloud.

But then the bobbing stopped, though she was still singing. And she found that she was on a moonlit shore, lit silvery gray, a shore held delicate as a wafer between the jaws of the night-ocean and the enormous black sky.

And on that shore was silence, but for the crunch of her shoe on the gray pebbles, but for the wash of the waves, which is a kind of silence. Absolute silence, and silver-cool beauty. And she never wanted to leave.

But, of course, the song came to an end. And when she opened her eyes, she saw them all standing around, staring at her, saying, “Sing it again.”

Ah, that poor girl. Like the Pied Piper in reverse. Think of that poor piper, the next time you hear his story, and feel for him! Think how dreadful it must be, to be followed everywhere you go by rats and children.

Grandma, what was the song? Her special song, her favorite sad one?

Oh now. It’s an old song, that. You’ve heard me humming it in bits now and then, no doubt. I never try to properly sing it, anymore. I can’t sing it the way that girl did.

Is it that one that goes ‘O come the wild dead leaves’? I know that one.

That is the one. Clever girl, Lacy, that is the one indeed.

At any rate. For one whole year the girl would close her eyes and sing, and return again and again to her island. The song made a glass ship, and her breath was the wind in its invisible sails.

What was it like, on the island.

It is hard—it was hard—for the girl to describe. Because when you’re on the island, you see a thing, but you forget its name. You forget whether it’s of any use to you, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad. You only see it, you only see what it is. All the noise of words and saying and choosing and judging is left behind you. You only see the great beauty of the stone, the shell, the sea-grass, the star. The great beauty of the moonlight scattered and trembling on the water. And no words, no words. All the words gone quiet.

That sounds stupid!

So totally boring!

I think it sounds wonderful.

Dumbface Lacy. 

Ya dope.

Then what happened, Grandma?

And then  . . .  And then, after a while, she lost the knack of leaving, when she sang. She couldn’t make her bottle-song-boat, anymore. And the people went away, and didn’t say, “Sing again.”

Why did she lose the knack?

Oh, well. I’m not sure. She just got out of the habit, I suppose. Because one of the pied piper rats, you know, —they weren’t really rats, of course, I mean one of the staring faces when her eyes opened—well: it was a kind face, and a handsome one, with long dark brows over smiling green eyes. And he persuaded her to give up the glass boat, and the island, and to give this hot, crowded, noisy life a try.

And it was worth it. Or for a while, at least, she found it was.

But she never saw her island again.

But Gran. It’s so sad. She really never got back to the island?

Lacy! Stupid!The song didn’t really take her to an island. She just went in her mind, Grandma means.

Is that what I mean? Thanks for telling me. Shoo the lot of you now, I don’t have all day to stand telling ancient stories. Children and their “sing me a song,” as if to sing a song wasn’t to . . . Lacy. Girl. Did you hear me say shoo? Why are you still here?

Girl?

Speak up. Words.

Grandma. Teach me that song. Please.

What  . . . What song do you mean, you silly child?

I know the girl was you. Teach me that song, ‘O come the wild dead leaves,’ that song that makes a boat or a bottle. The song that carries you across the sea..

But why? Why would you want to learn such a sad song?

Because I’m no good here. You know I’m no good here. 

Oh, Lacy.

I’m not. I’m not meant to be in this place, it’s too loud and bright, it’s not my place. I can’t bear it here, Grandma, I want to go the island with you. And I think I might have the talent, too, the talent of the howl.

But girl, even if we could. Even if we could go, what about the pied piper of it? You forget the coming back, and the people saying sing it again, sing another? There’s always the coming back.

Maybe this time we could stay, Grandma. If we sang it together. If we made a harmony. Maybe that would make the ship strong enough to stay on the island, far from the hot and the noise. Only cool and gray and moonlight.

Child.

There’s no green-eyed boy for either of us, to keep us here. I’m too young, and Grandpa died a long time ago. 

Child, oh child.

Come on, Grandma, sing, too. Just sing it with me—probably nothing will happen. I’ve heard you singing. I’ve been practicing, only I don’t know all the words. Listen: ‘O come the wild dead leaves of fall/O come the coldest rain. . . .’  Then what?

‘For summer lies as dead as he/And he’ll not rise again.’ O girl, you take me back, and you make me think of . . . but we mustn’t . . .

‘O come the wild wet winter snow/O come the prickling ice. . . .’

‘For love’s laid deep beneath the ground/And that was summer’s price.’

Now we sing together. Eyes closed, Grandma, and hold my hands. ‘O come the yellow buds of spring,/O come the melting snow. . . .’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go. . . .’

Grandma! LACY. Dinner!

It’s DINNER you guys. MOM SAID COME!

Weird, they were here like one second ago, I could hear them singing some stupid–Oh! Jeez, here you are. You scared me! Didn’t you  . . .

What? Are they . . . Wait. What are they—

They’re pretending. Come on you guys. It’s obvious you’re pretending.

You’re not scaring us.

You can’t fool us, we know you’re just playing. Come on, or I’ll POKE you—

Yeah! We get fair shot to poke you, if you’re supposedly . . .

Holy . . .

But . . . something’s really wrong. Something’s really, really . . . what’s happening? What’s wrong with them, what’s—

Go get Mom. Go get her NOW.

Spidersong

Deep in the forest, where there was only enough light to make shadows, where the air tasted of moss and rain, the spiders sang.

The forest was on the edge of a great city of glass towers and brick houses, of long roads filled with cars, and people. So very many people. They went about their lives, to school and work and home again, occasionally shooing small, scuttling things from kitchens and pillows.

“We wait,” the spiders hissed to each other. “We wait until the time is right.”

Not even a single leaf rustled overhead, the day entirely still. Above the treetops, far on the horizon, clouds moved across the sky.

The city people did not know about the spiders. Not the big ones, at least, in their enormous webs strung so thick they were like clouds, fallen to hang among the trunks and stroke the bark with wispy fingertips. There was no reason for the city people to know, no reason for them to venture so far into the forest.

“Tomorrow,” said the spiders. “Hungry.”

And they began to spin new webs.

~*~

Claudia Davenport hated her little brother, who had chased the dog away, over the fence and into the fields on the other side. She wasn’t supposed to go into the fields alone, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to go into the forest on the other side alone.

But she wasn’t supposed to lose the dog, either, and blaming it on Jamie would only get her sent to bed without dinner, because tattling wasn’t nice, according to her mother. Claudia held different opinions on that, but curiously, nobody seemed very interested in hearing them.

“Max!” she called. A warm breeze rippled the long grass in the field and it was nice, after so many long, hot days when there hadn’t been so much as a breath through the open windows of her house to cool her while she practiced the piano. The grass slapped against her bare, scabbed knees and whipped up dust from dry patches where it was completely worn away. “Max!”

She thought, perhaps, she could hear an answering bark, just inside the trees. On she trudged, feeling the air cool against her shoulders the instant she stepped into the shadows. It was quieter here, all sounds of the city muffled, and darker, though there was still plenty of light.

“Crazy dog, where are you?” Claudia’s voice bounced back and forth, set birds free from their branches. “No treats for you later.”

Footsteps padded along the moss nearby, but they didn’t sound like paws. That didn’t bother Claudia a bit. Jamie would be frightened, because he was a wimp and scared of everything, but Claudia liked all kinds of animals, and they liked her, too.

~*~

Spider legs danced along gossamer strings, spinning and weaving. “We are ready,” they agreed, and they crawled along their webs to sit, poised and waiting, all their many eyes staring in the same direction.

Down, down the strange avenue created by two lines of thick, gnarled trees, old as the ground to which they clung with their twisted roots.

Down the long path that led all the way to the fields and then the city.

Down the tunnel created by earth below and leaves above, through which–when the weather was just exactly right, the wind blew.

~*~

Claudia had never heard music like it before. Like violins, except not. Lower, richer, more like a cello, except not that, either. The melody was unearthly, nothing she recognized, and yet she knew it was music, intentional sound, not simply noise.

“Oh. Hi, Max,” she whispered, quietly enough that it didn’t interrupt the music playing everywhere, but especially inside her head. The dog had licked a large, slobbery patch on her shin. “When did you get here?”

Max whined, and shook a little at her feet. “Come on.”

The dog shook harder. Claudia had to clip his leash to his collar and pull to get him to follow, reluctantly, as she moved toward the music.

Louder, it grew. Louder and louder with every step.

It was weird, the way the trees grew this deep in the forest. As if someone had planted two neat rows and then stopped caring what happened on either side, so they were all jumbled up except for these two straight lines, a dozen feet apart. The toes of Claudia’s sneakers caught on rocks and snapped twigs, and she didn’t stop walking. Behind her, Max dug his little brown paws into the soft earth. She tugged him along.

Was it a harp? She’d seen someone play a harp, once, but it hadn’t made her feel like this, warm and sleepy. Almost floating.

The wind rushed at her back, past her, tossing her hair into her face, hardly broken by a little girl. She followed it, chased it, and stopped, peering through the dimness.

“Welcome,” said a voice. A voice that hissed, a voice with beady eyes and too many legs. The word wove itself into the music, adding another layer to the song. “She is a bit thin.”

“She is enough,” said another voice.

“She is plenty,” said a third.

And the wind blew harder through the spiderwebs. The music swelled. Max whined again. Claudia stepped closer.

“Plenty for what?” she asked, and her voice did not sound quite like her own. Somewhere, deep inside, a flicker of fear grew and was blown out by the wind. She should be scared, but the music was so pretty. Enormous webs spread out in front of her, stretched between the trees, spun in patterns she had never seen before. Nothing like the normal spiders in the basement. She reached out to touch a strand, vaguely surprised when it didn’t snap. Instead, a single clear note joined the melody, ringing through the forest.

“Hungry.”

Max whined again, pawing at her leg, and Claudia squinted. A spider as large as a football hovered just ahead, grinning.

There was another just there. And there. And over there. All around.

“You want…to eat me?”

“There is always one who hears the song when the winds come. Today, we feast.”

~*~

Occasionally, they got away. The little girl’s dog had yelped and snapped and chased her back down the avenue of trees. The spiders waited, sullen and starving, in their musical webs. So close, so very close. But not to be.

“Maybe she came this way,” said a voice, coming closer. “What a strange noise the wind makes in the trees here.”

Yes, oh yes.

“Mommy? Where’s Claudia? I didn’t mean to chase Max out of the yard.”

Two. The spiders grinned again, and bared their fangs.

The Trouble with the Ghoul

It is late July, and Nanny and Jane and Paris and I, though I am very small, are taking the steamer from Belmont, across a chugging blue sea, to a little white town on the coast. This is my first time going. Well, it isn’t really, but I don’t remember the other times; this is my first time going where I am clever enough to know about it, so I’m quite excited.

The steamer whistles and shears ahead, through water that picks at the sun and sparkles badly. I wave at Mama and Father on the shore, and so does Paris, and Jane and Nanny take out handkerchiefs and wave those.

I’m afraid I’ve mostly forgotten about the other summers I went. I only remember bits and pieces of them, like everything inside my head is a glass and I dropped it. I remember the great glossy mango leaves, and dripping lemonade pitchers, and sitting on a step and digging my toes into the hot, dry dust. I remember someone being scolded. But it is all rather indistinct. It doesn’t matter. Last year, quite without me noticing, I shot up like a little plant, and now I am very clever. I can do additions, and I can speak long sentences and not become confused. This summer, when I go to the white town on the coast, I am determined to remember everything.

* * *

We are staying with a Mistress Frobisher, who owns a pretty house a small ways outside of the white town, about a mile from the sea. We had to take a wagon to get there and Nanny’s trunk opened when the farmer loaded it up, and all her clothes fell into the road. It made everyone laugh, except Nanny. The house, I noted when we arrived, had a red roof and white-washed walls and blue, sun-baked shutters. We have only one neighbor, though there are other, similar white cottages scattered along the road leading toward the town.

Mistress Frobisher is a very proper, buttoned-up sort of lady. She is a friend of Mama’s, I think, though she is not a friend of ours. I don’t know why she is Mother’s friend. Perhaps because she has such a nice house. When we arrived, she straightaway gave us a list of rules:

Don’t be too long in the sun, or you’ll bake.

Don’t touch scorpions or bees or anything with teeth.

Don’t track dust into the house.

Don’t scream, or speak too loudly.

And certainly don’t wander by yourself. Not in the tall grass, or in the road. Not anywhere.

I noticed Jane and Paris glancing at each other at that, and smirking, and I glanced and smirked, too, but they didn’t look at me.

* * *

I met Jintzy on my third day after arriving at the white town by the sea.

I had decided to wander by myself, which of course was number five on the list of things I was not allowed to do. We were in a hot part of the country, and Nanny had warned us that there were snakes in the brush, and large spiders, and possibly lions. But I was tired of sitting about on the front step and waiting for Paris and Jane to do something interesting, and since I am six now, I went off behind the house when no one was looking and hurried away into the canopy of green and leaves that edges the back garden.

I wandered for quite a while. I passed a sad little gurgle of a brook, climbed over great boulders, went ever deeper into the green woods. The air buzzed with insects, and the leaves were huge as giants’ faces. The trunks of the trees did not only have bark on them like they did back home, but were also wrapped with snaking vines and clumped with mushrooms. I saw a lizard, and it saw me and blinked. And then I came to a field. There was a cottage in the field. It was a plain, stone cottage with plants climbing the crooked walls. A woman was out front, tending to a patch of a garden. She was dressed in bright, flow-y clothes and she had a cloth wrapped around her head, like a turban. Her stockings were very colorful, red and orange and purple braid, with plenty of frills and bobbins. The woman was far too old to be showing stockings. She was surely twenty, or forty-three. But I didn’t mind. I thought she looked wonderful. She was singing to herself, very prettily, in a high, piercing voice:

 

Rosa, Rosa, lived by the sea

Alone in a cottage built for three.

She never sang and she never danced.

She wouldn’t said why, and I know she can’t.

 

Rosa, Rosa sat in the dark

And gnashed her teeth and broke her heart.

She never ate, and when she did

It was air and shadows and things she hid.

 

Rosa, Rosa, come away quick

They’ll catch you, they’ll catch you and beat you with sticks.

Live in the shadows or die in the sun.

Eat seventy pastries, it’s better than none.

 

But Rosa, Rosa stayed by the sea

And they came, and they caught her; they broke her knees. . . .

 

Now Rosa lives in a new house by the sea.

It’s white and it’s lovely, ‘s’got forty-three keys.

It has so many toys, and it’s so much fun.

But the cottage is built just for one.

 

I suppose whoever wrote the words to that song was quite silly, but I liked the sound of it. The melody was sad, and it curled in the air like silver silk.

I wandered closer.

The woman did not see me. She worked away, plucking beans from soft green tendrils and poking about in the dirt with her stick, and all in such a lively happy way, like everything was her friend. She continued to sing, now something about a cloud and a sailboat and cockroaches. And then, all at once, a large, hairy animal rounded the corner of the cottage. It spotted me, standing in the field. It was a dog, and it began to bark.

I had such a fright. My heart leaped right into my throat and I turned tail fast as I could and fled back to the trees. I did not stop until I was sure the dog was not following me. Then I crept back to the edge of the woods and peered through the leaves at the cottage.

The colorful woman was still working in her patch, picking beans, poking with her stick. . . But although she was very far away I was almost sure she was smiling to herself, a small, secret smile.

* * *

I got a little bit lost on the way home. I walked through those hot green leaves, on and on until I came to a river. It was not the gurgling brook I had encountered on the way there. It was very wide, and I had to cross it on some strange, knuckly sort of logs that moved and shifted under my weight. I found the road again shortly afterward. All would have been well, except Mistress Frobisher was cross when I got back. She had been fretting. So had Nanny. They thought I might have been eaten by crocodiles, the sillies. They both seem to be quite unaware of my developments.

I told Nanny and Mistress Frobisher about the cottage and the lovely, colorful woman, tending the garden patch.

I didn’t think anything of telling them; I supposed I thought if Nanny and Mistress Frobisher knew I had been near people and houses they would not be so frightened, but it was not so. Nanny and Mistress Frobisher exchanged hard, quick glances, and then Mistress Frobisher took hold of my arm very cruelly and said, “You must never go there again. Wicked child.”

I began to cry when she said it, though I didn’t want to. I tried to twist away. “Why not?” I asked.

“It’s Jintzy’s place. You must never go there.”

And then Nanny asked the same question I had, but this time Mistress Frobisher had a better answer:

“Much speculation over that woman,” said Mistress Frobisher, wagging her finger. “By the townsfolk. Much speculation. One time, as I was walking that way collecting- well, collecting things, I saw a goat in the window of her house! A goat, looking right at me, saucy as you like!”

I did not tell Nanny or Mistress Frobisher that the only window I had seen was on the left side of the house, half-hidden behind a twisted, bushy tree, and that Mistress Frobisher would practically have had to press herself to the wall to see in. I said nothing at all.

* * *

Today, Mistress Frobisher took Paris and me to the town to see a collection of performers throw things about in the dusty square. Jane and Nanny stayed behind at the cottage because Jane was complaining of dizziness and nervousness.

We set off just after tea. Paris had run ahead a little way. I was with Mistress Frobisher and she was holding my hand. She thinks I am still a baby, I know it.

We were about halfway to the town, walking under the arching boughs of some trees when we met Jintzy on the road. She was coming from the opposite direction, and it was the first time I had seen her up close. From a distance she had already looked tall and lovely, but up close she was simply magical.

She was like a fairy queen, or a princess out of a storybook. She had a strange, beautiful face, and her eyes were slanted and very bright, as if there were bits of stars in them. Her hair was tied up in a scarf, and as she came up the road toward us, her colored sashes swished in the summer breeze.

“Hello, Mistress Frobisher!” Jintzy called out. She smiled at Mistress Frobisher and then at me, and I thought she smiled at me best.

“Hello,” said Mistress Frobisher stiffly. We paused.

And then Jintzy fixed her flashing eyes on me and clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Who have we here? What a darling little person!”

“I’m actually six,” I corrected her gravely.

“Of course you are.” Jintzy’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Silly me.” And then she dropped down in the road in front of me and whispered in my ear, “In fact, I shouldn’t wonder if your cow is a bit jealous of you, what with such a wonderful age as six. You must be very careful not to let her know.”

“My cow?” I said, pulling away, aghast and giggling both at once. “What d’you- ?”

“Shh.” Jintzy put her fingers to her lips. Her eyes were laughing, and I was laughing, too, but when I looked up at Mistress Frobisher, her mouth was like an iron pincer, shut tight.

I stopped laughing. For a moment there was only the chirp of birds. Then Mistress Frobisher said, “Come along, child,” sharp as a pin, and pulled me away from Jintzy. But Mistress Frobisher didn’t begin walking. She simply clutched at me, and we stood in the road, very still.

“Well,” Jintzy said, standing and brushing the dirt from her green and purple knees. “Good day to you, Mistress Frobisher. And you.” Jintzy smiled at me. Then she went on down the road, soft-foot in the puddles and the moss, stockings flashing in the sunlight.

Mistress Frobisher and I stood there a while longer. I looked up at her, confused. She was squeezing my hand very hard.

Finally she gasped, “Those stockings!” and tut-tutted, and pulled me on down the road, so sharply that I protested.

* * *

Today there is a carousel by the sea and we each have a little stub of ticket to go. I’m practically bursting with anticipation for it all. I have never been on a carousel before. Well, I have, but I was a baby then.

Jane, Paris and I all set off in a giggling, skipping gaggle, like a bunch of geese. We are the color of geese, too, in our white linens and stockings, starched and stiff as new paper.

We ran away up the dusty road, far ahead of Nanny and Mistress Frobisher.

“You’ll never catch me!” shouted Paris. “I’m the fastest.”

“No, you’re simply the loudest,” laughed Jane. And then they put their heads together and began whispering to each other and laughing.

I watched, a few steps behind. And then, because I did not know what they were saying and wanted to be a part of it by saying something scandalous, I said, “Jintzy called Mistress Frobisher a cow.”

I said it loudly, because I wanted to be sure they heard the first time, but I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher and Nanny had caught up quite a lot. I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher was standing directly behind me. I realized it very quickly, however, and turned. I looked up at her face and then down at my shoes.

Mistress Frobisher said nothing. She stared at me, her mouth like the iron pincers again. Then she said, “On with you. Get to the sea,” and we children went running up the road as quick as we could. When we rounded a bend, out of sight of Nanny and Frobisher, Paris cuffed me for saying nonsense in front of grown-ups.

* * *

The carousel was grand. For several minutes after the incident with Mistress Frobisher, and after Paris cuffed me, I felt sure the day would be spoilt and that I should be forced to pout for the rest of it. But then Paris, who is such a jolly-jolly, laughed and pinched my arm, and said,”Oh, come now, she is a cow, you just mustn’t say it so loudly or she’ll begin to suspect,” and I laughed and joined Jane and Paris and rode the carousel four times around, which made me quite proud.

One of the little boys fell off. That made me even prouder. I didn’t fall off, and he was just a baby. I held on very tightly.

* * *

On the way home from the carousel, something dreadful happened. Nanny had taken off her shoes to sit with her feet in the sea and she had not buttoned them up all the way for the journey home. And then, as she was walking, she twisted her ankle in the rut on the side of the road and because her boots were very loose, she broke it, the ankle, with a sound like a snapping twig. She screamed very loudly. We children stopped, startled, and were very concerned for her. Mistress Frobisher soothed her and tutted and ran to the nearest house to ask for a buggy and a donkey or a mule of some sort.

She came back with Mr. Brock.

He leaped down into the ditch and tried to help Nanny up, and that was when I saw there was blood on Nanny’s shoe and on her stocking.

I stepped a little closer to Paris.

“What the bl- “ started Mr. Brock, and Mistress Frobisher gave him a warning scowl and jerked her head in our direction, because she did not want him to curse in front of us.

“Look at it,” he grumbled, into his beard. “Look what she stepped in. It’s a small cage!”

And it was. Nanny’s foot had slipped down the side of the root and gotten caught in a little cage, and the wires had caught on her skin.

We were still trying to grasp this, and what it meant, when I saw Jintzy, ambling up the road. She was wearing green stockings today, with little brass bells jingling up their sides, and she had a ring of flowers in her hair, and a basket on her arm.

“Oh dear!” she said, when she saw Nanny crying and screaming in the ditch. Jintzy dropped her basket and ran toward our little group.

We children made way for her right away. But Mistress Frobisher hissed like a cat, and Mr. Brock growled, and said, “We don’t want your help here, keep going.” And so Jintzy did. She gave us children a quick, sad smile, like she was sorry Mr. Brock was such an oaf, and gathered up her basket and all the things that had fallen out of it, and went on down the road without a word.

* * *

“Too much strangeness,” Mistress Frobisher said to our neighbor over the fence that evening. The light was golden and hazy. Nanny was in the kitchen, her foot up and a cold cloth on her forehead. Paris and Jane were writing letters home. I was playing in the acacia tree and I don’t think Mistress Frobisher knew I was there.

“That wicked woman,” she was saying. “It’s her doing, no doubt about it.”

I wondered what wicked woman they were talking about. Wicked people were very interesting.

“I heard she catches little animals with those cages. And what does she do with them, I wonder. It’s anyone’s guess. Imagine if a child should fall in. Living in that cottage all by herself. With a goat. There’s something wrong with that one.”

“Aye,” the neighbor agreed.

“First Jane and then Nanny and then your wife, only days afterward, falling down a hole and skewering her hands.”

“She fell down the hole in Barmsalid- ” the neighbor began, but Mistress Frobisher just said, “It simply can’t be coincidence. It’s too much!”

I watched them both very closely through the knobby branches, and I listened very sharply. But then they started talking of children and the price of coffee and it became rather dull.

I shrugged and left the acacia bush and went and played in the back.

* * *

At dinner, Jintzy was brought up again, this time by Jane. She said, “Jintzy was in our yard today. I was out reading by the orange tree and she passed me and said it was shortcut to the road and she hoped I didn’t mind. I said of course I didn’t.”

I scowled at Jane. I would have preferred it if I had been in the garden then, and that Jintzy had asked me. But I had hardly any time to think about it, because Mistress Frobisher sat straight up in her chair and screeched, “Good heavens, child, you didn’t! Strangers on our property?  What were you thinking?”

Then I was glad Jane had met her instead of me.

“Jintzy’s practically our neighbor,” Paris said reasonably, trying to help out Jane, who was beginning to fumble. “She’s not exactly a stranger.”

But Mistress Frobisher would have none of it. “No! She is a dreadful creature, and everyone agrees. The neighbors and half the town. Laila Ishkeri said Jintzy might well be throwing curses at folk, making people ill and making them hurt.” She nodded at Nanny’s foot, which was still very swollen. “Of course, she doesn’t do it directly. Not in plain in sight. She’s far too clever for that. But Mirka said there was shadow on her window one night, and there’s been talk of creeping things in the town.” Mistress Frobisher narrowed her eyes and when she spoke the next words her mouth was red and wet, like a wound: “If she comes again tell her to put on some reasonable shoes and to take the road like everyone else. It simply doesn’t do to be nice to certain people.”

I thought that very interesting. After a while of silence, I said, “I like Jintzy.”

“No, you don’t!” screamed Mrs. Frobisher. “You’re just a child. You haven’t learnt anything yet, and you don’t know how the world works.”

I thought this very insulting. I was six. I knew about a lot of things, like additions and carousels, and I wasn’t like that baby who had fallen off. I don’t know what Mistress Frobisher was talking about, ‘hadn’t learned’.

* * *

It was Saturday when the most startling part of the summer happened. I had not expected anything startling. I had expected lemonade and peppermint leaves and dust, but I had not expected this.

I was helping Nanny shell peas in the kitchen when I heard it. Her ankle was up on the chair. “A ghoul!” came the shout through the window, faint and dull, but coming closer. “A ghoul in the town hall!”

I sat up so fast Nanny startled and winced, because I may have bumped her ankle.

“What?” I demanded. I hurried quick to the window.

People were in the road, running toward the town. The neighbor woman was stumbling out of her house, tying down her bonnet, and others in the road wore no bonnets at all, and looked quite disheveled and in a great hurry. It was a bright, hot day. Someone, I couldn’t see who, kept screaming, “Ghoul! Ghoul! Ghoul in the town hall!”

I did not know what a ghoul was, though I had heard them mentioned in vague terms in stories. In a flash, I had unlatched the window and was leaning out on my tip-toes.

“A what?” I screamed at the passing people. “What’s a ghoul?” But just then I saw Mistress Frobisher in the crowd, her face gray and determined, like a soldier off to war. When she saw me, she said, “Stay with Nanny, child! Inside with you!” And then she passed by and went along with everyone else.

“Nanny, what is a ghoul?” I asked, hurrying back to her side. I couldn’t stand not knowing. “What is it?”

Nanny was distracted. She kept glancing at the window, and picking at the same pea-pod over and over. “It’s a dreadful, terrible thing,” she said, her eyes darting. “Oh, dear, it’s born of shadows and witchcraft. It eats the dead, I heard, eats their bones and eats their eyes.”

Immediately I thought of the conversation I had overheard in the acacia tree, of the shadows in the town and the creeping things. I thought of Jintzy, and what Mistress Frobisher had been saying about her being a witch. I hoped it wasn’t Jintzy’s ghoul. I hoped she was all right in her little cottage behind the woods.

But even if it was Jintzy’s ghoul, I had to see it for myself. I was six.

I waited until Nanny was very distracted and then fled right out of the kitchen and out the front door. Then I was off, my little feet kicking up scuds of dust from the road.

I came to the town quickly. The houses looked bare and shut-up. No one was out. I raced into the square. It was there I found the townsfolk, crowds of them, jostling and screaming in front of the government hall.

“What is it?” I screamed, worming under arms and around legs. “Where’s the ghoul?”

I saw Paris, standing a bit to the side. “Have you seen it?” I shouted, running up. “Have you seen the ghoul?”

“Yes!” Paris exclaimed, turning to see me. “At least, I think I did. Oh, it’s dreadful. You can’t even imagine. It has so many arms and legs, and they have too many joints, and it has three heads. One’s lovely, and one’s sleeping, and one’s squished like cabbage, and the skin is green and rotting and has so many teeth!”

Paris would have said more, but just then the crowd surged forward and we were separated. I was bounced about until my head felt quite numb. I kept hearing, “How dreadful! Oh, I do hope they kill it! Oh, look!” And while I tried to look, everyone else was much taller, and so I only heard. Dreadful shrieks were coming from the town hall, through the open door. The sound was echoing and bouncing up the white fronts of the buildings and into the bells in the church tower.

Someone shouted, “Be gone! Be gone, evil creature!”

And then I heard a gasp, and everyoneall the tall peoplewent stock-still.

“The ghoul has been transformed!” the shouting voice said. “The ghoul has taken on the form of one of the townsfolk!” It took me several seconds to realize the voice was Mistress Frobisher’s.

“Who?” whispered the crowd. “Who did it change into?”

“That woman!” came the answer. “That Jintzy from behind the woods!”

And that was when pandemonium broke out for sure and certain. The crowd pushed me right into the hall, and I saw Jintzy, or what looked like Jintzy, for a split second, only her hair was disheveled and there was blood on her lip. I saw her bright stockings flashing. I did not see her eyes. They were closed, perhaps in pain. And then one of the ladies caught me and dragged me outside, saying, “Away with you. The ghoul might enchant you straight out of your senses.”

I was brought back to the cottage. Everything seemed dry as a husk. The sun beat down, unbearably hot now. The screams died away.

Later that evening Mistress Frobisher said that the ghoul had been subdued and had been buried with iron and salt and a stake through its wicked heart, that it would not disturb these parts again. And what a vile creature it was,  taking on the form of a citizen.

Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief as we sat down to our peas and pheasant stew. But I couldn’t eat, and I still thought it was too hot, and my collar scratched, and all I wanted to do was go to my room and lie on my bed, though I couldn’t say why.

Just before she brought us to the kitchen for ours baths, Nanny turned to Mistress Frobisher and said, “Rosa, hand me the lamp, won’t you?”

* * *

I never saw Jintzy after that. The times I slipped away from Nanny and Mistress Frobisher and went to her cottage it looked quite bare and desolate, and the garden grew wild, and the half-hidden window disappeared entirely behind the twisted, bushy tree. I wondered often if Jintzy had moved away due to the trouble with the ghoul.

Summer Springs

If Julian had to stay in this car for one more second, he was going to start screaming. And that would probably make Mom and Dad and Summer sing even more loudly than they already were. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible—they were practically wailing—but Julian knew from experience that it was.

Julian paused his music and tugged out his earbuds and squashed the hot gummy bubble of anger in his chest.

“Hello?” Julian said. “Are we gonna stop soon?”

road tripBut Mom and Dad and Summer were singing one of those round songs, which meant Julian had to hear the same song sung three different times by three different voices overlapping. It was chaotic, and nobody but Mom could sing worth anything, so it was also kind of painful.

Hello.” Julian kicked the back of his dad’s seat but not hard enough to get in trouble.

Dad stopped singing and looked at Julian in the rearview mirror. “Almost, Julian. Don’t snap at me.”

Dad went right back to singing, but his voice sounded irritated now. Of course Dad was irritated. Mom and Dad and Summer loved the whole road trip thing: the junk food and the singing and stopping at random “special attractions” like oversized spools of thread and the birthplace of General Whoever who fought in Some War Who Cares.

But Julian always got sick in the car. Long trips made him nervous. Books were one thing, but Julian didn’t like going to real new places. Danger in real new places was totally possible. The people in real new places were weird and looked at you funny, and in real new places, you can’t close the book when things get too scary. Not that anything scary had ever happened to Julian, but if it ever did it would definitely be on one of these stupid road trips. Also, Julian was no good at singing so instead he listened to books or music on his headphones the whole time because that helped him relax.

Road trips made him feel both angry and left out. Why couldn’t he just have a good time and not be nervous or sick and just smile and sing lame car songs instead, like normal people did? Like Summer.

Julian looked at his sister and felt his chest bubble up again. He tended to get so angry at Summer. She was about to turn ten years old, and she was all cheerful and golden-haired like a fairy tale princess, and everyone loved her. Summer could make friends with a fencepost, Mom always said.

So what if Julian wasn’t like that? So what if Julian was quieter and wasn’t good at making friends and didn’t like real new places? Julian knew he shouldn’t care. He was smart enough to know that everyone is different and it would be weird if the world was filled with all Summers and no Julians.

But he did care. It made him angry, and that made him feel bad. Summer was a good kid, and Summer understood Julian. She liked that he was quiet, and she was nice to him even when he was mean to her.

Summer put her hand on Julian’s hand and smiled, laughing at some joke Mom said. “Sing with us, Julian. Sing the next song with us?”

“No thanks,” snapped Julian, and snatched his hand away.

Summer darkened, like she was sunlight and Julian was a stormcloud. She curled into a little ball and looked out the window. She wasn’t singing anymore.

In the front seat, Mom sighed.

Dad looked even madder now, in the rearview mirror. “Apologize to your sister.”

“For what? For not wanting to sing?”

“For your tone.”

The bubble burst in Julian’s chest. He wanted to punch the back of Dad’s seat. But Dad had said they would have lemonade and fudge at this place, and Julian was starved, and punching probably wouldn’t get him anything. So he mumbled, “Sorry.”

Summer peeked over at him and smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Her fingernails were dirty. Her front teeth were crooked and goofy. Julian kept his face stony. Summer crossed her eyes and pulled her mouth into a weird shape.

“Dork,” Julian said, and Summer giggled, and Julian turned away, smiling.

Mom pointed, the map flying out of her hands. “There’s the exit!”

Dad swerved hard, and they made it. They passed a sign for Summer Springs, and Summer clapped, squealing. “That’s my name!”

Julian couldn’t even be mad at her. It was pretty cool to share a name with a nature park. It was why they’d chosen this place. Dad smiled and Mom smiled, and Summer traced the letters on the window with her pinkie.

 *

Mom bought four cups of lemonade and four sticks of fudge, so when they started on the trail through Summer Springs, Julian’s stomach was full and his fingers were sticky.

Summer Springs was a park in the mountains, with a whole set of trails built into the rocks. There were stone bridges and rocky passages so small Dad had to suck in his belly to get through, and cliffs that looked out over the countryside. From Lover’s Leap, Julian could see five different states. If he squinted through Dad’s binoculars, he could see white houses buried in trees next to the highway.

But the place did have one weird thing about it: gnomes.

Little stone gnomes with colorful clothes and hats, placed throughout the trails. They dug ditches and planted flowers and stood frozen, waving their shovels at the people walking past.

“This is so . . . random,” said Julian, looking at a gnome in a purple shirt with a rake in one hand and his hat in the other.

Dad laughed. He was really getting a kick out of the gnomes. “People who build these attractions tend to be a bit eccentric, I guess.”

Mom giggled and took pictures of them. “I think they’re adorable! Such ugly little faces.”

“How can something be adorable and ugly?” said Julian.

“Oh, they can. You know, like those pug dogs.”

“Julian,” whispered Summer, tugging at Julian’s shirt. Whenever they passed a gnome, Summer went quiet. She shrank, like she was a flower and the gnomes were icy cold winter. “I don’t like them.” gnome

“Why not?”

“They’re watching us. They have sharp teeth. They don’t like us, either. They’re watching us.”

“They’re not real, Summer. They’re just stupid statues.”

“They smell like . . . skin.”

“Oh, like you can smell the gnomes from all the way over here? The not-real, statue gnomes with their not-real, statue skin?”

Summer tugged on Julian’s arm, pulling him down the path. “I don’t like them,” she kept muttering, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “They’re watching us, they’re watching.”

Julian let Summer mutter and freak out or whatever it was she was doing. Sometimes Summer did stuff like this. She liked to daydream, and she didn’t read books because the stories affected her too much. They scared her so much she couldn’t sleep, or made her cry so hard she got sick, or made her so happy she’d get hyper like she did after eating candy on Halloween, except like a hundred times worse.

Summer was just being Summer.

Gnomes that smell like skin. What a dork.

 *

Except for the whole gnome thing and Summer acting bizarre, Julian actually liked it at Summer Springs. The mountain breezes were cool, and that helped Julian’s car sickness. There were lots of trees, and at this one spot a bunch of white deer slept next to a creek.

The moment she saw them, Summer fell in love with the deer. “Julian, look at them!” Then she lay on her stomach to peer over the cliff and started talking to the deer like they were her babies. She even gave them names: Sweetheart, Sammy, Sammy Junior . . .

A twelve-year-old boy can take only so much of that, so after a minute or two Julian let Summer do her thing and looked around through the binoculars. He saw a rabbit, and a family on a wooden bridge with five kids, and an old man leading his three-legged dog up some steps. At the top, he let his dog drink from a bottle of water.

“If I were an animal, I’d want to be one of these,” Summer said, kicking her brown legs. “A white deer with long legs and big doofy ears.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “You already have big doofy ears.”

“Meanie!”

“You’re too close to the edge.” Julian put his hand on her collar.

Summer dusted off her knees and shirt and smiled up at him. “Nice meanie.”

“Weirdo.”

Dad was calling them, waving them over. Mom was taking pictures of a woodpecker.

“What animal would you want to be?” Summer said, squinting. It was really bright on the mountain, sunlight reflecting off the rocks like white glass. “If you were an animal.”

Julian walked toward his parents, Summer hot on his heels. “A monster.”

Summer scrunched up her face. “A monster isn’t an animal. It’s a monster.”

“Well, okay. A monstrous animal, then.”

Summer scratched her left leg with her right foot. “So you could scare people?”

“So people would leave me alone if I wanted them to.”

Summer was quiet. Mom was pointing at the mouth of a cave. “The Enchanted Caverns!” she said. “There are fairy tale dioramas inside. Scenes from famous fairy tales. That’s what the map says.”

“Seriously, so random,” said Julian, shaking his head.

Dad and Mom laughed and held hands.

Julian and Summer followed their parents past a white cottage built into the mountainside. On the cottage’s roof sat a gnome with wide white eyes and a toothy grin, and a purple checkered banner said THE ENCHANTED CAVERNS in faded letters. Julian could hear people laughing and talking inside.

“I wouldn’t, though,” said Summer decidedly. She stopped to pick up smooth dark pebbles and put them in her pocket. She glared up at the wide-eyed gnome. “I wouldn’t leave you alone, Julian, not ever. Even if you were a monster. Not even then.”

Julian took Summer’s hand. It was warm and small, and it made the last of Julian’s car sickness go away. Together, they stepped inside the cave.

 *

At first, Summer was quiet and calm.

She held Julian’s hand as they walked through the Enchanted Caverns behind their parents. They saw other families, and other children, and Julian saw the old man carrying his panting three-legged dog. Twinkly music played from speakers in the ceilings, a dance-like song that made Julian think of one of his books, when the hero’s sneaking through a dark corridor, danger around every corner.

The music turned Julian’s skin into a field of goosebumps.

Creepy blue lights lit up the fairy tale dioramas and bled into the corridor. Julian peeked through each window to see them—the iridescent trees, the glowing figurines, their gnarled, sculpted hands. Red Riding Hood approaching the cottage where the wolf was waiting. Snow White in her glass coffin. Goldilocks, her face in shadows, running from three snarling black bears.

And occasionally, a little meadow of gnomes—gnomes picking flowers, gnomes planting vegetables. A group of gnomes sitting on a shelf in the ceiling, their black boots dangling over Julian’s head.

Through all of this, Summer remained quiet and calm, though her hand gripped Julian’s so hard that finally he ripped it away from her.

“Ow! What are you doing?” Julian hissed. “You’re hurting me.”

Summer grabbed his shirt. “I don’t like it in here.”

Julian was about to yell at Summer for being stupid, but something about the look on her face stopped him. “Well, we’ll just walk a bit faster. We’ll hurry through, and then we’ll be out in the sun again.”

“No, I don’t think so. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Summer started pulling on her hair. When Julian tried to stop her, she grabbed his hands. “Julian. Julian!”

Julian turned away. He had never seen Summer like this, not even in her strangest moments. Surely someone would come. Surely Dad and Mom would hear Summer screaming and find them, take them by the hands and lead them out.

But Julian saw no one. He heard no one. All he heard was the twinkly music from the speakers overhead, and the soft drip-drip of water against stone. Everyone else passing through the caverns had disappeared. Everything was eerie and blue and dark.

“Dad?” He tried to yell, but no sound came out. His fear had come so quickly that it was like being hit in the stomach, or plunging into icy water. Julian couldn’t speak, or breathe, or move. “Mom?”

Summer threw her arms around Julian’s neck and screamed. “I won’t leave you, I won’t, I won’t. Even with monsters. Even with monsters.”

Julian tried to pry loose Summer’s arms, but she wouldn’t let go. “Summer. What are you talking about?” Julian felt like he wanted to cry. He didn’t understand why his sister was acting like this. He didn’t understand where everyone had gone. This was all happening so fast. “Summer, talk to me!”

“You shouldn’t be here,” came a voice. A whispery voice. A very-old voice. A too-old voice.

Julian whirled, and Summer stopped screaming, and there, at the bottom of the stone steps, crouched a tiny boy. His clothes were torn scraps. He was pale like he hadn’t seen the sun in years, and though his body was small, his face was tired and wrinkled.

Summer took the rocks from her pocket and threw them at the boy. “Get away from us. Get away, leave us alone!”

The boy dodged the rocks like they were nothing. “Shouldn’t be here,” he whispered. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t. But too late now.”

Julian came out of his shock and grabbed Summer’s hand. He was shaking, but she was on fire. She was blazing hot, and steady. Her eyes snapped hatred.

“Actually,” Julian told the boy, “we were just leaving.”

The boy found a popsicle stick someone in the crowd had dropped. He chewed it until his lips bled and picked his teeth with the splinters.

“You aren’t leaving,” he said. “Neither of you. One to pay, and one to stay.”

One to pay, and one to stay. Dozens of voices said it, from somewhere Julian couldn’t see—from everywhere. They whispered it over and over, and Julian saw shapes moving in the shadows. Pale shapes, dark shapes, deformed shapes. They came into the blue light, little by little. They were all children—some boys, some girls, all bent and broken and backward, with faces too old for their bodies.

Julian backed up until he hit the wall. He kept Summer behind him. “Pay what? We don’t have any money.”

The broken child-things laughed. The first child-thing, the pale boy-thing, smiled a toothless smile. He had a pointed black tongue. His mouth opened too widely.

From behind Julian, Summer took off her shoe and threw it at the boy. He ducked, and it bounced away.

“It’s been a long time,” the boy said, “a very long time, since there has been anyone worth keeping.” The boy smiled, his jaw snapping open. “You’ll make them very happy. And it’ll be nice to have a new friend.”

“Keeping?” Julian felt sick. He could hardly stay standing. He felt the ridiculous urge to shove in his earbuds and turn on his music and close his eyes. That would make this go away. “You can’t keep us. We’re not staying.”

The child-things went quiet. They straightened, and their smiles faded. Now they were the ones looking afraid.

The pale boy pointed into the darkness. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, but you are. One will stay, and one will pay.”

Julian held tight to Summer’s hand, and turned around.

They came in a small, dark, slithering crowd. They crawled and crept, they dragged themselves along by broken yellow claws.

The gnomes, it seemed, were not gnomes at all anymore.

The gnomes, it seemed, had been hiding something . . . else.

Bits of torn bright clothing clung to their brown, bony frames. They had long pointed ears and long pointed snouts. Some had tails and some had rotting, stumpy wings. Some still wore their ruined gnome hats. They carried knives; their teeth were lined with blood.

“I don’t like them!” Summer said shrilly. She took off her other shoe and threw it at them, but it melted when it touched them, and turned into a thick black liquid like tar. The creatures swarmed over it, scooping it up with their hands. They fought over it, smearing it on their faces. They breathed deeply. They were smelling it.

“Smells like,” they growled, licking their lips. “Smells like child.”

“Fresh, frightened child.”

“Young, innocent child.”

Sweating, shaking Julian imagined that he was in a book. Yes. Yes, that had to be it. He was in a book, and the only way to get out of this was for the person reading the book to close the book and put it aside for the day.

“Close the book!” Julian yelled, waving his arms at the ceiling and jumping around like crazy. “Close it! Please, hurry!”

The creatures hooted and hollered. The pale child-things whispered to each other, hiding in the corner.

“You,” wheezed the nearest creature, a great spindly brown thing with limbs like a spider. It moved like a spider too—skittering here and there, crawling close to the ground. “You.” It pointed at Julian. The other creatures and the child-things fell silent. “You will pay.” It pointed next at Summer. It grinned widely, rotten teeth spilling out over cracked lips. “And she will stay.”hand

The creatures began to cheer. They beat on their chests, raked their claws against the stone, gnawed on their torn clothes.

The child-things rushed toward Summer. They were rushing toward Summer. Julian tried to stop them. He kicked them and punched them. He tore at their filthy clothes, and the fabric came apart in his hands like muddy leaves.

It was not enough.

“No!” Julian cried. He reached for Summer and caught her fingers, but the creatures were pulling him away, and he lost her. Their scabby brown fingers wrapped around his legs and arms, dragging him across the floor. Their hooked wings were fluttering over him, scraping his cheeks. They pushed at each other to get closer.

They were smiling down at him. Pay, pay, pay, they chanted.

They were raising their knives. He will pay, pay, pay

“Fine,” said a small voice. “Fine. I’ll stay. I’ll stay here, if that’s what you want.”

The creatures stopped. They lowered their knives and looked away. Julian looked too, scrambling to his feet.

Summer stood there, hands in fists at her sides. She had that weird, faraway look like she used to get when she was allowed to read. She looked small, and angry.

The child-things had swarmed around Summer, their bony pale hands digging into her arms. But now they backed away from her, huddled in the corner and wide-eyed.

“I won’t leave my brother,” Summer said. “I told him I wouldn’t. So of course I’ll stay.” She turned to glare at the child-things, her nose wrinkling. “You don’t need to be so mean about it.”

The creatures stepped back, and back, and back, grumbling, groaning, their too-long arms dragging along the stone.

The child-things stared. The pale boy crept closer to Summer, on all fours like a scared dog.

Julian rushed over and kicked the pale boy in the chest. The boy crumpled, gasping, and put up his hand.

“It’s been so long,” he said, “since anyone was brave enough. Since someone stayed instead of trying to run.”

“So long,” the other child-things whispered. “Years upon years.”

Summer found Julian’s hand. Julian grabbed it tight. “Well,” said Summer, “even if he were a monster, I wouldn’t leave without him.” She shivered and sneezed in the cold. “I said I wouldn’t.”

She looked like a normal Summer again, instead of strange, brave Summer. Or maybe both were the same. Julian wondered: Would he have stayed for Summer? Was he as brave? Maybe instead he would have tried to escape. It was impossible to know, and Julian felt cold and sick again, like in the car with the air conditioning blasting on him and too much junk food in his belly.

“Go,” said the pale boy. He touched Summer’s bare feet and then shrank back like she had burned him. “Go, now.”

The creatures, slinking and shuddering over each other down the corridor, were staring at Julian and Summer with cold dark eyes that glinted in the blue light. They were confused. Julian could see that. But for how long?

“Now,” whined the pale boy. He pushed Julian, and his hands left behind a stinging feeling on Julian’s skin. “Now.”

The child-things howled and ran deeper into the caves, and the pale boy went with them.

And the creatures—the horrible skittering creatures—reared up into a single great shape in the dark cavern. They shrieked and surged forward, spilling over the ground toward Julian and Summer like a wave of black water. Their nails clacked against the floor.

But Summer was fast, and Julian was faster. He led the way, pulling Summer hard, and hands grabbed at their legs and seized their clothes, but they didn’t stop.

When they hit the sunlight, it was like bursting out from underwater. Summer was coughing, and Julian was holding her up. Julian felt a hand grabbing at his leg and kicked back, but when he looked behind him, nothing was there but the mouth of the cave and a cheerful sign that said COME BACK SOON.

Dad found them and clapped them on the backs. Behind him, Mom was taking pictures of blue jays. The three-legged dog was on a bench getting his belly scratched.

“There you are!” Dad said. He was red-cheeked and happy. His shirt was sweaty, and his hat was crooked. “You two were right behind us, and then all of a sudden you weren’t. Thought I was gonna have to come get you.” He knelt in front of them and ruffled Summer’s hair. “Pretty cool in there, huh? Lots of things to see. And kind of spooky, huh?

“Dad.” Julian tried to say it a few times before he found his voice again. “Dad, promise me something.”

“Sure thing. Hey. Wait.” Dad leaned back and squinted at Summer’s face. “You all right, sweetie? Something scare you?”

Summer tried to smile but she didn’t let go of Julian. She held onto his arm and her fingers were white. Her cheek was warm against his arm, and this time, when Julian felt the hot bubble in his chest, it wasn’t gummy or bad. It was full of light, and it held Summer’s name inside it.

“Just promise me,” said Julian.

Dad scratched his head, pushing back his hat. “Well, sure. Anything. What is it?”

“If Summer ever asks me to sing with her again,” Julian said, squeezing his sister’s hand until he felt her squeeze it back, “make sure I do it.”

*